China is moving in the right direction for elephants

79 ivory tusks laid out at a Hong Kong government customs and excise facility. PHOTO: © Alex Hofford/IFAW On a hot and humid afternoon in early June, I testified in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China in support of the government’s proposed law to ban elephant ivory trade.

The rhythmic sound of African drums drew me to the entrance of the Hong Kong Legislative Council complex. Holding signs with bloody images of elephants killed for their ivory, people in support of the proposed law danced to the beat.

On the other side, a smaller group of protesters stood silently with signs that said; “Protect ancient Chinese ivory culture! Stop ivory trade ban. Compensation for legal ivory.”

The delegates of the committee were as polarized as those outside the council doors.

African rangers testified that the victims of the poaching war fueled by the ivory markets in Asia include not just hundreds of thousands of elephants, but people as well. Erik Mararv, a manager from Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the committee how poachers ambushed his team and killed his colleagues as they stood next to a body of an elephant “with its face hacked off.”

The time came to give my three-minute pitch: “The Chinese government’s closure of ivory markets on the mainland by the end of 2017 makes it ever more urgent to close the ivory markets in Hong Kong. The sooner the ivory markets in the Special Administrative Region close, the sooner we can put a damper on the laundering and trafficking of illegal ivory via Hong Kong to the mainland.” 

Later in the hearing, ivory traders accused the government of ruining their investments; some even demanded compensation. One trader cried for not being able to leave his grandchildren the inheritance of his ivory. Another pounded his fist on the desk in protest when a legislator spoke in support of the law.

Waving a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) import permit, another ivory trader demanded to understand why the export of “pre-convention ivory” from Europe was allowed while the “legal ivory trade” in Hong Kong is to be banned.  

Watching this dramatic scene, I couldn’t shake off the nagging thought: “What got us into this mess in the first place? Will we ever learn our lesson?”

CITES banned international ivory trade in 1989 to stop the rampant killing that cut the African elephant population in half over the past two decades. The ban instantly collapsed ivory markets across Asia, including Hong Kong. In the 1990s ivory prices dropped, and the incentive for elephant poaching declined.

Hong Kong ivory traders should have taken the hint then and left the trade. Most didn’t. Many were betting that the trade ban would be temporary.

Unfortunately, they were right. CITES repeatedly created loopholes for the trade of “pre-convention ivory” or “ivory from natural mortality.” These loopholes compromised the integrity of the international trade ban.    

Just as elephant populations started to recover in Africa, CITES approved the first one-off ivory sale to Japan in 1997, followed by another to China (mainland) and Japan in 2007.

The “legal” ivory sales confused consumers. Many believed that market availability of ivory denoted the legality of trade.

The sales gave ivory vendors opportunity to launder ivory from illegally killed elephants into domestic “legal” markets. The legal ivory sales created devastating results:

  • Ivory prices skyrocketed, attracting new and old consumers alike for collecting, decorating, investing and gift-giving.
  • The traditional appreciation shifted from the craftsmanship to ivory as a material—“white gold.”
  • Hong Kong became the key transit point for illegal ivory, creating tremendous burdens on enforcement agencies.
  • Hong Kong Customs seized two large illegal ivory shipments weighing nearly four tons in 2006 and 2012. However, the second shipment contained twice as many tusks—1,200 compared to 600. This meant that to meet the demand of the market, poachers began to target young elephants.
  • More than 100,000 elephants were killed in three years from 2010 through 2012.

Despite the loss these traders have taken, everything pales in comparison to the loss of elephant lives. The prevailing sentiment in the room the day of my testimony was that there should be NO compensation for ivory traders because “they made a bad investment decision.”

Hong Kong resident Lian-hee Wee angrily asked, “Why should we bail out failed businesses that are based on the killing of lives?”

We look forward to more steps Hong Kong legislators take to follow the guidance of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying when he said in his annual policy address in 2016 that the region should “explore appropriate measures” to phase out the local ivory trade and impose heavier penalties on smuggling and illegal wildlife trade.

--GG

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